Plant-based vs. vegan: What is the difference?

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Plant-based foods and diets have become increasingly popular. Some people may be confused about the difference between being vegan and eating a plant-based diet. Perhaps the key difference is that veganism includes avoiding animal products of all kinds, including clothing, while plant-based usually refers to diet only. Keep reading to […]

Plant-based foods and diets have become increasingly popular. Some people may be confused about the difference between being vegan and eating a plant-based diet.

Perhaps the key difference is that veganism includes avoiding animal products of all kinds, including clothing, while plant-based usually refers to diet only.

Keep reading to learn more about the differences between veganism and plant-based diets. This article also provides some key information on other diets based on plant foods, discussing their potential benefits to health and the environment.

There are differences between being vegan and eating a plant-based diet. The following table highlights the main principles of each:

The following sections will explain the differences in more detail.

Being vegan is a philosophy and way of living. The Vegan Society of the United Kingdom defines veganism as follows:

“Veganism is a philosophy and way of living [that] seeks to exclude — as far as is possible and practicable — all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals for food, clothing or any other purpose; and by extension, promotes the development and use of animal-free alternatives for the benefit of animals, humans, and the environment. In dietary terms, it denotes the practice of dispensing with all products derived wholly or partly from animals.”

Although different people embrace vegan living to different extents, in practical terms, being vegan means avoiding the following:

  • animal foods, such as meat, fish, seafood, dairy, eggs, and honey
  • food additives and ingredients that manufacturers derive from animals, such as gelatin, beeswax, and cochineal
  • clothing or goods that manufacturers make from animal skins, such as leather, suede, fur, and wool
  • clothing or goods that manufacturers make from feathers, such as down
  • clothing or goods that manufacturers make by exploiting animals, such as silk
  • zoos, circuses, aquariums, and other uses of animals for entertainment
  • products or ingredients that manufacturers have tested in animals

Some vegans also choose to avoid palm oil, as they argue that manufacturers destroy habitats to extract it, which causes suffering in animals. Some vegans also avoid purchasing from or supporting companies or charities that use animal testing or exploit animals.

It is important to note that using the term “vegan” to describe oneself denotes adhering to this lifestyle. People who avoid eating animal products but who do not choose to be strict about other lifestyle choices sometimes refer to themselves as eating a vegan diet rather than being vegan.

Although vegans have an ethical stance in common, their actual diets may vary.

For example, some vegans choose to eat whole foods and avoid processed foods. Others choose to include vegan “junk foods,” such as burgers or sausages made from plant-based ingredients, in the diet.

Others still have a more balanced approach, including occasional processed foods but mainly eating whole foods.

Learn more about the health benefits of eating a vegan diet here.

Whereas veganism is a philosophy based on avoiding animal cruelty, when someone chooses a plant-based diet, it tends to be for other reasons, such as their health or the environment.

The term “plant-based diet” refers to mainly eating foods that originate from plants. Another term that people sometimes use is a “plant-forward diet.”

People who eat a plant-based diet may exclude all animal foods or eat limited amounts of these foods. There are various ways to approach plant-based eating, which the following sections will discuss in more detail.

Some people choose to eat a plant-based diet for environmental reasons or for health reasons, such as to lose weight.

Eating a plant-based diet does not necessarily involve avoiding products or services that cause suffering to animals. For instance, someone who eats a plant-based diet may choose to wear leather or use personal care products that manufacturers test in animals.

Some people may describe themselves as eating a plant-based diet if they eat whole foods made from plants and avoid processed foods. Others might eat processed plant foods such as meat substitutes but choose to refer to themselves as eating a plant-based diet because they do not adhere to veganism’s lifestyle definitions.

Different plant-based diets exclude animal foods to varying extents. The following sections will explore various plant-based diets and discuss their potential health benefits in more detail.

Vegan

One 2021 review indicates that well-planned vegan diets may protect against obesity, metabolic syndrome, and cardiovascular disease.

However, someone who eats a strict plant-based diet must ensure that they consume essential nutrients to stay healthy. For example, they may need to take a supplement for some nutrients, such as vitamin B12. People can also eat foods fortified with vitamins and minerals.

According to the same review, some potential deficiencies to be aware of while following a vegan diet include:

  • vitamin B12
  • protein
  • omega-3 fatty acids
  • iron
  • vitamin D
  • calcium
  • zinc
  • iodine

Someone who wants to eat a strict plant-based diet could consult a registered dietitian for advice.

Learn about foods that are high in vitamin B12 here.

Vegetarian

People who eat a vegetarian diet exclude meat, fish, and animal ingredients such as gelatin but still eat eggs, dairy foods, and honey.

The main distinction between a vegetarian diet and a vegan diet is that vegetarians avoid foods that involve killing animals but do not avoid all animal products.

Vegetarians see eating eggs and dairy foods as harmless to animals, whereas vegans argue that this constitutes cruelty and exploitation.

The American Dietetic Association advises that vegetarian diets are nutritionally adequate and may reduce the risk of some chronic conditions. However, the quality of different vegetarian diets may vary, so vegetarians must ensure that they eat healthy whole foods most of the time.

Learn more about the differences between veganism and vegetarianism here.

Pescatarian

Pescatarians avoid meat, dairy, and eggs but still choose to eat fish.

As well as the health benefits of eating a plant-based diet, pescatarians have the added potential health benefits of consuming fish.

The American Heart Association (AHA) recommends eating fish, particularly oily fish, at least twice per week. It advises that oily fish such as salmon and mackerel contain omega-3 fatty acids that can reduce heart disease and stroke risk.

Learn more about the pescatarian diet here.

Raw vegan

Someone who eats a raw vegan diet consumes plant foods uncooked or only heated to low temperatures.

This approach excludes familiar carbohydrate sources such as potatoes, rice, and bread. However, some people following a raw food diet use a dehydrator to make bread from sprouted grains.

They may also include sprouted grains, seeds, and beans as sources of protein and carbohydrates.

Some research indicates that plant-based diets are anti-inflammatory, are beneficial for gut health, and can decrease the risk of some chronic conditions.

However, there has been limited research into the health effects of following a raw vegan diet.

An older 2005 study involving 201 adults suggests that following a strict raw food diet decreases cholesterol and triglycerides. However, the diet may also lower beneficial high-density lipoprotein cholesterol.

In the study, the raw diet increased the study participants’ homocysteine levels due to vitamin B12 deficiency. High homocysteine is a risk factor for stroke and cardiovascular disease.

Pegan

A pegan diet combines a vegan and paleo approach to eating. People who eat a pegan diet consume mostly plant foods and include minimal amounts of animal products, grains, and beans. The diet is low glycemic because it restricts added sugars and processed foods.

Eating a pegan diet may have additional health benefits associated with a Paleolithic diet, including a reduced risk of obesity, inflammatory conditions, and some cancers.

Flexitarian

A flexitarian, or semi-vegetarian, diet is primarily vegetarian but includes occasional meat or fish. One 2016 review suggests that the health benefits of eating a flexitarian diet may include:

  • decreased body weight
  • improved metabolic health
  • reduced risk of diabetes
  • improved blood pressure
  • benefits for inflammatory bowel disease

Eating a flexitarian diet may also help people achieve food intakes that experts recommend.

According to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, around three-quarters of people in the United States meet or exceed the recommendations for meat, poultry, and egg intake.

However, almost 90% do not meet the guidelines for seafood intake, and more than half do not meet the recommendations for nut, seed, and soy product intake.

According to one 2018 review, eating diets higher in calories and animal-based foods have resulted in the following environmental impacts:

  • an 860% increase in global nitrogen fertilizer since 1961, causing pollution to water and harm to humans and wildlife
  • an increase in agricultural land threatening biodiversity
  • a risk of species extinction
  • an increase in greenhouse gas emissions

The review concludes that more people adopting plant-based diets could provide considerable global environmental benefits and reduce global greenhouse gas emissions by 30–60% by 2050.

Being vegan is a philosophy and way of living. It does not simply relate to a person’s diet.

People who eat plant-based diets may choose to do so for health or environmental reasons. They may exclude animal products in varying amounts. Plant-based diets include flexitarian, pescatarian, and pegan diets.

There is evidence to suggest that eating plant-based diets has benefits for human health and the environment.

Someone who plans to adopt a plant-based diet must ensure that they meet their nutritional requirements to prevent deficiencies.

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